March 2006

Readers of the August 17, 1929 Johnson City Chronicle would find few clues to the enormous financial havoc about to wreck the country in just over two months – the stock market crash.

This five-day “Newspaper of Character” sold for three cents with an annual carrier subscription rate of $7.00. The city’s population was about 36,000. The front page contained national and international headlines with not a single local news item, those being relegated to other sections of the paper. One large section, “Weekly Farm Number,” showed the importance of farming in 1929 with these two strong messages: “Don’t Raise Products You Can’t Sell” and “Give the Land a Chance to Work For You – Rotate Crops.”

An article, “Fire Alarm Caused By Flying Sparks,” told of a fire at the American Cigar Box Company, located on Cherry Street adjacent to the railroad tracks. My grandfather, Earl B. Cox, worked there about this time. The Austin Springs social calendar listed people going on vacation, individuals receiving friends in their homes and folks “motoring” to nearby cities.

One article described the destruction of a local 75-gallon moonshine still on Chimney Top Mountain, impounded from someone locally referred to as “King of the Moonshiners.” The fall fashion report called for “a revival of the curved feminine figure with a slender waistline, fullness at and below the hip lines and long and voluminous skirts.”

The sports page displayed the names of baseball legends, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, under the heading, “Yanks Trounce Tigers for 12 to 2 Triumph.”Of local interest, the Troupers from Johnson City’s Soldiers Home and the Mountaineers from Bristol were scheduled to play baseball the next day at home.

Two local bus schedules were displayed. The ET&WC Motor Transportation Company conducted trips to Asheville, Cranberry, Elizabethton, Bristol, and Erwin. Conspicuously absent was Kingsport. The Seals Coach Line advertised excursions between Johnson City and Appalachia, with stops in between.

Surprisingly, only two comic strips were featured: “Bringing Up Father” (with my favorites, Jiggs and Maggie) and “Polly and Her Friends.” There were ads for three downtown movie theatres: the Criterion, the Majestic and the Liberty. The Deluxe Theatre (later renamed the Tennessee) showed no listing.

Kodak’s Hawkeye Camera sold for 98¢; the size of the developed black and white prints was a mere 2¼ by 3¼. A two-quart hot water bottle was also priced at 98¢. Many of us can recall filling those wonderful bags with water so hot we would nearly burn ourselves until they had lost sufficient heat to become quite comfortable in bed. One interesting classified ad read: “For Rent – Garage space for one automobile at 615 East Watauga Avenue, $5.00 per month.”

The financial page offered one revealing clue to the impending stock market crash in an article that read, “Bulls Advance Many Issues To Record Levels.” People were in a buying frenzy driving up stock prices to record highs and paying for them on margin. The crisis came to a climax when masses of people began selling their overpriced stocks, driving prices down and leaving investors with little money to pay their debts. 

The relaxed reading of this August 15 newspaper would quickly be transformed into one of despair within just a few weeks. The country’s financial recovery would be painfully slow.  

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I have fond memories of taking Sunday afternoon drives with my family in our old 1950 solid black Ford coupe. As we “motored” through the upper East Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia regions, we often encountered a series of small advertising signs along the roads.

“We're Widely Read – And Often Quoted – But It's – Shaves – Not Signs – For Which We're Noted – Burma-Shave.”

In 1927, the Burma-Shave Company launched one of the most unique and memorable advertising campaigns in history, enduring until 1963. The commercialization of the automobile allowed people to explore America’s cities and countryside, making highways fertile ground for advertisers. For 36 years, these modest signs were posted along roadways, becoming an icon of American life.

“On Curves Ahead – Remember, Sonny – That Rabbit's Foot – Didn't Save – The Bunny – Burma-Shave.”

Six (sometimes five) wooden boards with white lettering on red background were spaced about 100 feet apart along heavier traveled roads. Eventually, there were 7000 sets of signs, spreading into every state except those with terrain concerns – Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Massachusetts.

“Past – Schoolhouses – Take It Slow – Let The Little – Shavers Grow – Burma-Shave.”

Initially, these slogans were total sales pitches, but they soon became a source of entertainment with catchy rhymes, witty safety reminders and time-honored wisdom.

These non-offensive and cheerful adages brought the country through the depression and World War II, when people needed something to make them smile.

“To Steal – A Kiss – He Had The Knack – But Lacked The Cheek – To Get One Back – Burma-Shave.”

Clinton Odell, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, concocted Burma Shave, a brushless shaving cream, but the public did not readily accept it. The owner’s son, Alan, suggested a series of small roadside ads along major highways. The rest is advertising history.

 “Although Insured – Remember, Kiddo – They Don't Pay You – They Pay – Your Widow – Burma-Shave.”

The spacing between signs required people to wait a few seconds before being able to read the next word or phrase, the final one being the name of the product. The company, needing a continuous source of slogans, conducted an annual contest that paid $100 for each verse used. They received over 50,000 entries from would be poets. The little signs were not without their problems. Some were stolen or vandalized; hunters used them as target practice; small animals would chew on them; and horses found them ideal for back scratching.

“Train Approaching – Whistle Squealing – Pause! – Avoid That – Rundown Feeling! – Burma-Shave.”

The Burma Shave phenomenon came to a screeching halt in 1963, caused by escalating costs, declining sales and faster cars traveling on new superhighways. The little colorful signs had simply run out of gas. Most ads were gone by 1966; a few lingered until they were felled by the elements. The Smithsonian Institution wisely salvaged a set to preserve this unique piece of Americana.

Let me conclude by offering my own fabricated tribute to Burma Shave: “Little Road Signs – Long Passed By – You Were As American – As Mom’s – Apple Pie – Burma-Shave.”

Compose your own Burma Shave limerick and send it to me. 

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 It was known as the school held together by chewing gum, but on March 4, 1974, all the chicle in the world could not have saved it. The massive three-story brick edifice at Roan Street and Fairview Avenue fell victim to a huge wrecking ball.

A 1936 student handbook offers a glimpse of what it was like attending classes there. The school opened in September 1922 with Miss Regina Eiseman as principal. By 1936, enrollment was 1078 students. Mr. A.E. Sherrod was principal and Mr. Roy Bigelow, Washington County superintendent. This melting pot school initially served the seventh and eighth grades, the ninth grade being added in 1938.

Prior to that, students attended classes at Science Hill High School, located a few blocks south down Roan Street. Junior High School had 68 classrooms, 2500 volume library, bookstore, gymnasium, cafeteria, large U-shaped basketball courtyard and a large 1000-seat auditorium. In addition, the Home Economics Department had an impressive five-room “model home,” containing a living room, bedroom, dining room, kitchen and bath.

The academic year was divided into two semesters: 7B, 8B and 9B for the first and 7A, 8A and 9A for the second. Required subjects for 9A were English, Algebra, Civics, Spelling, Writing, Guidance and Library. Electives for 9A were Latin, Manual Arts, General Science, Sewing and Cooking, and a choice between Music, Physical Education and Bible. Students needed 148 credits to graduate to high school.

The school utilized a “Junior Patrol,” consisting of 13 specially selected students wearing wide white belts, carrying bright red flags and directing pedestrian traffic around the facilities. The facility provided a first floor room where students could park their bicycles during the day. They were rolled through the northeast Myrtle Avenue door and down the steps to a designated room.

Cafeteria food was priced at five cents per item with four crackers allotted with a bowl of soup and two with a salad. A slice of bread was allowed with each vegetable purchased.

Football, basketball and tennis were the main sporting events. The official school song, sung to the tune “Till We Meet Again,” contained these highly spirited words: ”Junior High, the school I love best; Junior High, the fount of joy and jest; Junior High, where friendships true; Make the world a brighter hue; Junior High, where loyalty’s the test; Junior High, whose mottos well professed; He profits most who serves the best; Junior High, All hail! T-E, A-M, T-E, A-M. Team! Team! Team!”

These astute words were found in the handbook: “Many thrilling examples of honest mutual admiration between victor and vanquished may be gleaned from the history of warfare, as when Grant handed back the sword of surrender to Lee.”

 The school published a student paper, initially called “The Broadcaster,” so named after a student contest. Later, the publication was renamed, “The Junior High News.” An annual school tradition was the graduating class’s “farewell” drama, performed on the auditorium stage. The 1936 play was titled, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Junior High School’s once imperative task was successfully relegated to its offsprings, Indian Trail Middle School and Science Hill High School, allowing the long deceased, gum-reinforced institution to rest in peace.

If you have other remembrances of this old school, let me hear from you. 

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This nine-year old boy made a brief 20-mile excursion on a Southern Railway train from Johnson City to Bristol in 1951.

The trip stands out vividly in my memory for two reasons. It was my first and last railroad jaunt; passenger service became extinct not long afterwards. The trip afforded me an opportunity to spend some quality time with my grandmother, Ethel Carroll. We boarded a Southern Railway passenger train at its downtown station one sunny Saturday morning and quickly arrived in downtown Bristol at the old Norfolk & Western Union Passenger Station, a historic relic from 1902.

Upon disembarking, our first order of business was to walk down State Street and eat lunch at a local five and ten store. Granny asked me if I wanted to dine in Virginia or Tennessee, making reference to the fact that the state line runs down the middle of the street. After enjoying a meal at Kress’s lunch counter and visiting a few department stores, we purchased tickets to the Paramount Theatre to watch the film, “Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm.”

The main stars, Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, became an overnight sensation from their bit role in the 1947 Universal Pictures’ comedy release, “The Egg And I.” The plot involved a city couple, played by Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, moving to the country to operate a dilapidated chicken farm.

Their simplistic country bumpkin neighbors were the Kettle family. The story line would later be replicated in television’s popular Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies. This hillbilly clan was immediately featured in their own right in seven additional flicks: “Ma & Pa Kettle” (1949), “Ma & Pa Kettle Go to Town” (1950), “Ma & Pa Kettle Back on the Farm” (1951), “Ma & Pa Kettle at the Fair” (1952), “Ma & Pa Kettle on Vacation” (1953), “Ma & Pa Kettle at Home” (1954) and “Ma & Pa Kettle at Waikiki” (1956).

A common thread in the Kettle series was the hard working, often shrill-voiced, Ma trying to get her dawdling apathetic husband to work around the house and farm. Pa’s main talent was winning advertising contests. The Kettles had from twelve to fifteen children (depending on the picture you were watching). Ma was constantly forgetting her offsprings’ names: “Billy, go in the house and fetch me my broom.” The puzzled youngster would respond, “Ma, my name ain’t Billy.” His mother would counter with “Well, go fetch it anyway, whatever your name is.”

A frequent scene in the Kettle movies was when Ma prepared a scrumptious meal; rang the dinner bell; shouted, “Come and get it” and abruptly stepped aside to avoid being trampled by her stampeding famished brood. Pa blessed the bountiful table by meticulously removing his hat, looking reverently toward Heaven and uttering a brief simplistic prayer, “Much obliged, Lord.”

At the conclusion of the madcap movie, Granny and I shopped at a few more stores, ambled back to the train station and boarded our coach for the short return trip to Johnson City. There are few recollections rooted in my memory bank more pleasurable than when a proud grandmother and her impressionable young grandson rode a train and spent a fun day together in downtown Bristol.  

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